Fuelling running performance is a really tough task. It's always a balance between fuelling properly for sessions and not wanting to over fuel either. As an undergraduate and postgraduate student I have done a lot of work on the importance of nutrition and endurance running. I really believe that the nutrition and fuel you give your body is the glue that keeps your training together. One of my key areas of research and work as a coach has been about effective carbohydrate fuelling for endurance runners.This blog focuses on what would have been a typical week for me when I was training and how I would focus my nutrition around the sessions I needed to complete.
Introduction to Running Physiology
Without wanting to offer a full science lesson I will start by explaining some of the basic physiological concepts as a coach and athlete you want to focus on to improve performance. Endurance running performance relies heavily on 3 main performance factors: VO2 max, Lactate Threshold and Running Economy. The contribution of each element varies dependent on the athlete and the distance you are racing but as a rule of thumb, VO2 max is generally correlated to 3km/5km pace with Lactate threshold and Running Economy correlating well with Half-Marathon and Marathon.
VO2 max is the maximal amount of oxygen the body is able to uptake and utilise at any one time. The more oxygen an athlete can use the more energy their body can produce therefore highlighting its benefits to performance.
Lactate threshold is defined as the breakpoint on the blood lactate curve. Lactate is produced at a 1:1 ratio with Hydrogen+ ions in the muscles. Hydrogen+ ions inhibit CA2+ (calcium) release, in turn this reduces the muscles ability to contract and decreases the body’s rate of energy production. Thus, it is essential for endurance performance the body is well adapted to clearing H+ ions from the muscles because this will reduce the likelihood in an early onset of fatigue. In addition, a higher lactate threshold will enable the athlete to produce energy aerobically for longer durations of time, therefore, hold an intensity for longer than someone who goes above this threshold before them.
Running economy is defined as the energy cost of running at a certain intensity. Traditionally we measure this by working out the cost of running in terms of Litres of oxygen (L of O2) per km. The lower the value is the more efficient a runner is deemed to be at that speed. This will mean there is a lower energy cost of exercise for a given intensity so in theory a runner should be able to run for a longer duration at a given intensity if they are more economical.
Monday: AM – 35mins easy. With the day before being my long run (most taxing session in terms of calories in the week) I am usually pretty fatigued on a Monday morning! I had lectures from 9am on a Monday so I would generally not eat before this session. This was mainly due to timing constraints but limiting carbohydrate availability can also help improve aerobic energy production.
PM – 45mins steady plus 30mins easy. This particular Monday evening I had a 45min run to complete and then a social run with Up and Running afterwards. Run 1 started at 5pm and run 2 at 6.10pm. This then caused a bit of a nutritional challenge. Due to the intensity of the runs, I didn’t need a huge amount of carbohydrate to complete the effort as it was part of a double training day . Carbohydrate contribution increases as the pace of your run increases because it is a much faster way of producing energy and requires less oxygen to do so. For me, I am now able to run 6.30mins per mile and slower without taxing carbohydrate resources to a great extent. This has been achieved through years of high training loads and periodising my nutrition in order to make my body more efficient at using fat as a fuel source.
Generally, I will load a reasonable amount at lunch time (60-70g) with then a snack (around 30-40g of carbohydrate) and a black coffee around an hour before the first run. Coffee as many of you know has caffeine in which helps increase oxidative capacity and reduce the perception of fatigue so in theory helps you run faster! However, I mainly drink it because I enjoy a coffee! Between the runs I would have a cliff bar just to offset hunger more than anything because being in a training mindset for 2hrs between 5-7pm at low intensities makes me very hungry! As I have a hard track session the day after I consume a pint of milk as soon as I get home and within 30mins of completion of the final run in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and rehydration. This enables me to recover faster from exercise because protein helps rebuild the torn muscle fibers training induces. Therefore, by starting this recovery process I am ready to train hard again the next day. Then around 8.30pm I will consume a dense carbohydrate-based meal in order to start fueling for the session the next day. This will be accompanied with a protein source of a salmon fillet, chicken breast or mince-meat (whatever a student budget can afford!). In addition, I will always attempt to add 4-6 vegetables to my evening meal to aid protein absorption through Vitamins A, D, E and K and to help with enhancing immunity to prevent little illnesses and infections.
Tuesday: PM – Track Session of 3*(3*700m off 200m jog recovery) 400m jog between sets. These reps were completed at around goal 5km pace. 5km pace, as stated in the introduction, is generally well correlated to VO2 max and therefore the session will tax carbohydrate resources . This is because the amount of energy required to sustain these fast paces is greater than an easy run for example. Therefore, my body will rely almost entirely in carbohydrate energy production during the session because during the reps my body won’t have time to oxidise and breakdown fat as a fuel source. There will also be a contribution from my anaerobic system within the reps too when accelerating for example. Consequently, I try to implement a small carbohydrate load in the 24hrs before. Breakfast will consist of yoghurt with frozen berries which will be around 50g of carbohydrate. Lunch will consist of cous-cous with salad and feta cheese or something similar which will be up to about 70g of carbohydrate. Around 2 hours before the session I will have a pre-training snack which will be up to 50-60g of carbohydrate again. It’s important before workouts like this to not overfeed carbohydrate as the nature of these intense sessions is a 2:1 work to rest ratio which for this session would be just under 20mins of work. With there being an anaerobic contribution to these efforts, an overfeeding of carbohydrate will lead to it being converted into adipose tissue which is not optimal for body composition . It is important to mention at this point that this could only occur if I was in a calorie surplus however because I don’t track to the exact calorie what I intake I just make sure I am aware of what I’m taking in in order to avoid weight gain!With having a session to complete the day after, it is essential to consume 20g+ of protein within 30 minutes of the sessions completion in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. With my evening meal after a session I put less emphasis on a carbohydrate base in order to restrict CHO for the easy aerobic session the next day. This is in line with the ‘sleep low’ theories presented by Sam Impey and Louise Burke (links to papers at the bottom!).
Sleep low is a method utlised by athletes in order to enhance protein signaling within the body in order to improve an runningefficiency (running economy). This is because there is a glycogen depletion within the body therefore the body has to use alternative fuel sources in order to create ATP.
Wednesday: PM – 60mins easy run. This session I usually leave until the evening in order to recover after Tuesday’s track workout. With it being a slower endurance run, I can usually just use carbohydrate already stored within the body without having to load at all. With my body still trying to recover from the hard effort the day before, I hammer in on my protein consumption at breakfast and lunch in order to make sure I am recovered. The next day’s training was another easy endurance day, so I didn’t carbohydrate load within the evening meal.
Thursday: AM – 50mins easy. This session again, is done fasted due to both time constraints and to try and improve efficiency. Due to that this is a double day recovery, between my two sessions is really key so after the run, I again have a pint of milk within 30mins before a breakfast of yoghurt and fruit to ensure I’ve had over 20g of protein in order to start the recovery process.
PM: - 35mins easy plus Hurdle Drills. This can become quite a long session as the drills last up to 1 hour. Due to this, I usually take an energy bar to have during the session in order to stop the hunger knock I get after my run! After this run, I put a little more emphasis on carbohydrate intake as I had a VO2 max test the day after. With me having ran over 45 miles in the past 4 days I am pretty fatigued so getting enough vitamins and minerals in is key so the fruit and veg content in my meals generally goes up to 5-6 with my evening meal and 3-4 at breakfast and lunch.
Here is an example evening meal, this is a packet of cous-cous (60g of Carbs), salmon cooked in herbs and spices (20g+ of protein per fillet) with a selection of vegetables (tomatoes, cucumber, mushrooms, courgette and peppers!). This is a really easy meal to prepare, as it takes less than 30mins from start to finish!
Friday: Midday – VO2 max and Lactate Threshold Session. With the test being at around 1pm I ate twice before this session. There wasn’t a massive carbohydrate content to these two meals just because the nature of the tests would mean I only had 8-12mins of really intense running to complete. Therefore, a carbohydrate loading protocol would have resulted in excess muscle glycogen which would have been converted to adipose tissue and compromised my body composition. Excess calorie consumption before this test will lead to intake that I don’t need. Which, if sustained across a training week would lead to increased body mass which is sub optimal for performance! In the test I scored a 73. The main priority of the session was to try and maximise caffeine intake. I did this through just having black coffee which is not the most effective method of caffeine consumption, however, I find that it fits nicely lifestyle wise and I don’t get the after effects of excess caffeine content in the diet!
Saturday: PM – 45min progression run. This session is a long aerobic session where I am working between my two lactate threshold points for around 30mins or so. This makes it quite a taxing session calorie wise, however the aim is not to go anaerobic and therefore there is a contribution of fat metabolism to some extent during this session. I won’t carbohydrate load at all before this run just maintain normal portions because I already have enough muscle glycogen stores to support this session. After the session, I had a big emphasis on recovery to be ready for my long run the next day. With this being a longer-session, I do ensure that I have a strong carbohydrate intake the night before.
Sunday: AM – Long Run (17miles). Generally, we meet at around 9am for this session and therefore before my long run (dependent on the intensity) I change my nutritional intake. When I know it’s going to be a faster paced long run, I will ensure that I take on some food and caffeine before the effort in order to fuel the greater calorie expenditure. For slower efforts I have an espresso before heading out. Throughout the run I don’t take any water or gels mainly because of I have no way of carrying it! After the run, I immediately have either a protein shake or pint of milk to start the recovery process. I find Sunday’s are the most vital day for nutrition in terms of recovery and setting up the next training week. However, the nature of the long effort does suppress my appetite massively therefore I try to make a double portion of my Saturday meal in order to make it as easy as possible to have a good lunch on Sunday! There is quite a lot of research about exercise induced anorexia and especially in endurance runners this is extremely common. Therefore, it’s essential that athletes and coaches acknowledge this and make nutritional intake as easy as possible through double portions and drinking calories for example. From this point, recovery is really key, so I make sure that I put my feet up and chill out before doing it all gain the next week!
Key points to remember
· Carbohydrate Intake – Carb is king and will fuel a lot of performance but remember the intensity of your session dictates how much you need. You don’t need carbs for an easy 35min run!
· Protein Intake –20-30g feeds in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and within 30mins of exercise in order to maximise recovery.
· Fat Intake – Don’t neglect fat, calorie balance is essential in order to maintain body mass and have enough energy to train!
· Fruit and Veg Intake – Minimum 5-7 fruit and veg a day for endurance athletes. This will help you absorb protein better for recovery and help with your immunity, so you stop getting ill!
I hope you enjoyed reading about how to put theoretical concepts into application within my nutrition around a training week.
Thanks for reading!
Link to Burke paper: https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/28/5/article-p451.xml
Link to Impey paper: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-018-0867-7
My name is Joshua Schofield and the Head-Coach at PGC1-Caoching. I have studied for a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science Leeds Beckett University and an MSc in Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Literature University. One of my key areas of research and work as a coach has been about effective carbohydrate fuelling for endurance runners. If this is something you would like to know more about check out this podcast by Running with Jake where I speak about carbohydrate fuelling with running: https://open.spotify.com/episode/7Gb9EFA5aBuPAOpVyf9PVg?si=YuKFWtbaT6yaxJww5LBmnw